Inside the "New Normal" of Remote Instruction

The Introduction to Engineering Design (ENG 3) team meets over Zoom to prepare for the final week of classes and the course’s design showcase. (Jennifer Mullin/UC Davis)
The Introduction to Engineering Design (ENG 3) team meets over Zoom to prepare for the final week of classes and the course’s design showcase. (Jennifer Mullin/UC Davis)

Since Yolo County issued a shelter-in-place order on March 18 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, life has changed dramatically for the College of Engineering’s students, graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) and faculty members. In keeping with Aggie spirit and pride, our community demonstrated tremendous flexibility and resilience in transitioning spring quarter classes online and have immersed themselves in the virtual environment to create a robust remote learning experience this fall.

As campus has started implementing procedures such as symptom surveys and contact tracing for positive COVID-19 tests for the indefinite future, the college has adjusted to this new normal of education at a distance. Though 2020 will be remembered as anything but a normal year, college faculty, staff and students are finding new ways to learn, teach and stay connected in this new environment.

“I tell students, ‘when you become an engineer, you become a problem solver,’” said Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) professor Klaus van Benthem. “As challenging as this is, I think the students will come out of this as better problem solvers and with experience dealing with an unforeseen situation.”

Assisting with teaching

Lab courses are challenging to teach online, but instructors and TAs have worked hard to keep the classes interactive and the students engaged.

Remote instruction has been perhaps the most challenging for Introduction to Engineering Design (ENG 3), which teaches hands-on design, teamwork and presentation skills—three things that are hard to do online. To coordinate, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) Assistant Professor of Teaching Jennifer Mullin and her team of 11 TAs meets weekly via Zoom to plan lessons, give feedback on what is and isn’t working and share resources to support one another.

“We had to up our game as teaching assistants,” said ENG 3 TA and BAE Ph.D. student Clay Swackhamer. “We need to, in real time, figure out how to get students engaged, so we’ve had to be really flexible.”

MSE Ph.D. student and TA Edward Conley leads a virtual discussion section on writing research papers in lieu of in-person labs. (Susan Gentry/UC Davis)
MSE Ph.D. student and TA Edward Conley leads a virtual discussion section on writing research papers in lieu of in-person labs. (Susan Gentry/UC Davis)

MSE Assistant Professor of Teaching Susan Gentry uses her TAs’ experience to help “re-invent” her classes and lead alternating one-hour discussion sections each week instead of labs. These discussions cover both lab-based topics and professional skills such as data analysis and how to write a research paper.

“We’re trying to take advantage of the time to do things we might not have otherwise,” said Gentry. “It brings new opportunities for students to learn things and develop skills that they need.”

The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and the college have helped keep the hands-on component of laboratory instruction by buying experiment kits for every student in ECE lab courses and ENG 3, respectively, and mailing them to their homes so they can still work on the projects.

“The students are really stoked about it,” said Swackhamer. “They like that they now have something physical to put their hands on.”

Videos and simulations

Rashtian tries to make his lectures engaging by using color, recording them live and maintaining face-to-face contact with students by showing his video. (Hooman Rashtian/UC Davis)
Rashtian tries to make his lectures engaging by using color, recording them live and maintaining face-to-face contact with students by showing his video. (Hooman Rashtian/UC Davis)

Though the college has embraced simulations and videos out of necessity, Swackhamer, ECE Assistant Professor of Teaching Hooman Rashtian and others have been pleasantly surprised at how well they’ve helped their students learn.

Rashtian incorporates online circuit simulations in his lectures, which allow him to show, on the spot, the effect of changing component values on circuit performance.

“Because students can see the simulation as they are introduced to the topic, they can develop a more intuitive understanding of the circuit,” he said.

The TAs in ENG 3 have had a similar experience with another simulator called Tinkercad. Students can use it to build virtual Arduino circuits in a collaborative workspace and refine their design before translating it to the real world. The TAs can also check in, troubleshoot and leave comments in each workspace.

“It’s basically the Google Docs of circuits,” said TA and BAE Ph.D. student Gui de Moura Araujo. “I still feel close to students because I can check in on their progress and help them in real time.”

Asynchronous videos are also becoming increasingly important. Instead of a physical end-of-quarter showcase, ENG 3 students are learning to make videos for their final presentations. In an environment where keeping students engaged is a challenge, Rashtian uses video in live lectures to stay active and interactive, switching between multiple devices to give them the most thorough experience possible.

TAs in ENG 3 and ECE make videos for their students on almost a daily basis and post them to Aggie Video. In ECE, the TAs use these videos to demonstrate the lab before the students try it, and in ENG3, TAs cover everything from wiring circuits and Arduino basics to recording Zoom meetings and adding videos to presentations. This is all part of building online toolkits for each class.

“You need to spend a lot of time to refine and improve the quality and make it something that students enjoy watching,” said Rashtian.

In addition, campus has compiled a plethora of resources for students, TAs and faculty on everything from technology like Zoom and Canvas to how to design a class for remote instruction to help them through the change.

Online design

Before the shelter-in-place, seniors engineering in each department were given real-world problems to solve with a design that they build in teams and present at the annual Design Showcase. The project is a capstone of their undergraduate experience and, for many, a stepping stone to jobs.

BAE Ph.D. student Vivian Vuong, a graduate advisor to a BAE senior design team, was impressed with how much the students have remained enthusiastic. Her team has used Arduinos left over from siblings’ projects to build circuits and tested designs in their parents’ backyard to get as close to a real-world environment as they can.

“They’re very scrappy,” she said. “They were very willing and able to figure it out themselves and make the best of this not-so-great situation.”

A thermal image from a MSE senior design team taken in COMSOL Multiphysics. Senior design teams are using modeling software like COMSOL to build their designs since they can’t meet in person.  (Jared Putnam/UC Davis)
A thermal image from a MSE senior design team taken in COMSOL Multiphysics. Senior design teams are using modeling software like COMSOL to build their designs since they can’t meet in person. (Jared Putnam/UC Davis)

For the MSE students, the shelter-in-place order came the same day that they presented their design concepts to their peers. With the projects already in progress, the teams had to shift from building something to creating models of the design using engineering software.

“They still need to solve the same problem, they’re just now using a different tool,” said van Benthem, who taught the department’s senior design course this spring.

Using modeling software was a challenge, however, as most students had never used it before. Despite the learning curve, van Benthem says it was a valuable learning opportunity and a good place to begin making modeling a permanent part of the undergraduate curriculum.

“It was a true challenge, but we are all running with it, I think, rather successfully,” he said.

Building community

A silver lining of remote instruction may be that it’s building a greater sense of community across the college as students, TAs and faculty support one another.

This is important in ENG 3, where every student is building their own design or part of a design. Combining and modifying these ideas into a single design is known as iterative engineering design—something the instructional team has made sure to emphasized.

“It’s put the students in a position where they have the opportunity to explain things to each other, even more than in the past,” said Swackhamer. “It’s really re-enforced the community aspect of engineering design.”

Rashtian has found a way to incentivize this in his classes by giving extra credit to students who finish labs early and are willing to help their peers. This not only helps reduce the workload on Rashtain and the TAs, but helps students better understand the material.

“Often times we learn better when we teach, so by teaching the material to their peers, it helps them as well,” he said.

Rashtian also tries to build community by holding daily office hours for all ECE students, who can make an appointment to talk to him about any challenges they’ve faced. A survey conducted by campus also noted the office hours were valued by students and instructors alike and it helped both feel connected to one another in an environment that can feel isolating.

“There’s a lot of community happening,” said Vuong. “The undergrads are supporting each other, the grad students are supporting the undergrads while checking in with each other, and when I meet with most faculty members, the first question they ask is, ‘how are you doing?’”

This story was featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Engineering Progress.

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